This week the Victorian government rejected calls to trial supervised drug injecting facilities in the state. The decision immediately angered numerous medical and community groups who champion the positive impact a similar facility in Sydney has had for 15 years. But despite the push-back, the new government is standing by its pre-election promise to support injecting rooms.
Supervised injecting facilities enable intravenous drug users to inject under the supervision of nurses or social workers. They supply sterile syringes and safely dispose them afterwards. Advocates say they can educate users and provide emergency care, as well as a pathway to rehabilitation, treatment, and other potentially life-saving services. But they've been the topic of debate for over a decade and New South Wales is the only Australian state to have implemented them.
Currently the Yarra Council, the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, the Greens, the Sex Party, and the Australian Medical Association are all calling for a six month trial of a supervised injecting room in the Victorian suburb of Richmond. The area has had long-term issues with drug use and overdoses, often in public view, and syringes littering the street.
Many local residents are opposed, claiming that injection rooms encourage or condone illicit drug use and create a honey pot effect drawing users to the area. Meca Ho, the president of the Richmond Asian Business Association, tells VICE the drug epidemic is only getting worse, but harm minimisation program are not the answer. "As a Richmond business representative, I oppose the injection rooms," he said.
Ho believes that although the rooms would help drug users in the short-term, they won't address crime or put local families at ease. "It's helpful for the drug users but it won't help stop the crime," he says. "It's giving drug users a safe haven."
But Yarra Councillor Stephen Jolly tells VICE he's seen the very real impact of drug use in his local area, and something needs to be done. "It's a nightmare for the residents, and someone's got to say that the current policy is simply not working, people are dying."
He's calling on the state government to reconsider, for both the safety of the residents and drug users. "It's just harm minimisation, the same as what we do with cigarettes and alcohol," he says. "But it's all about votes, and the government are totally underestimating the intelligence of Victorian people."
In 2013 heroin abuse contributed to 132 deaths in Victoria, and more than five ambulance call-outs per day in Melbourne. A 2013 Burnet Institute report found increasingly high rates of heroin-related overdoses in the North Richmond area, as well as a four-fold increase in needles and syringes in public places as compared to the previous two years.
Despite the Yarra Council's continued appeal to the state government to consider the trial, they've had little success with either the Liberal or Labor governments. Rather, locals who live in the area are asking for preventative measures, not harm minimisation.
Ho, for example, wants further surveillance in the area. "We need their support for CCTV before we lend any support for the injecting rooms," he says.
In comparison to Richmond's ongoing issues, Sydney's Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross has been found to be effective in lessening the common harms associated with illegal drug use. Since its first trial in 2001, a 2013 fact sheet showed that the centre managed nearly 5,000 drug overdoses without a single death, halved the number of needles discarded in public, decreased ambulance call-outs to the area by 80 percent, and led to about 9,500 referrals to health and social welfare services.
Australian Drug Foundation's policy manager Geoff Munro says he understands the community's apprehension, but evidence shows that the rooms are effective. He told VICE, "People are complaining about young people shooting up in laneways and gardens. A injection facility would move these people off the streets and into somewhere they can get help."
But despite the perceived success of the Sydney facility and widespread support, supervised injecting facilities have so far failed to be embraced nationwide. And with ongoing concern about the proposed sites, and politicians not wanting to be seen as condoning drugs, there's no sign that's to change.
Despite this, Cr Jolly remains hopeful. He says a Victorian facility is only a matter of time. "At some stage in the medium-term we will be given the okay for the trial, but more people will have to die, and the situation will have to get worse before it gets better."
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